New York's Corroboration Requirement: Women Effecting Change
The fear of false accusations of rape prompted many states to require that the alleged victim's testimony be corroborated by other evidence. New York passed its first rape law in 1787, making rape a felony punishable by death. The state legislature first required corroboration, in cases of abduction and seduction, with the passage of two bills in 1848. New York adopted a Penal Code in 1881, the first codification of its criminal laws, and five years later passed a corroboration requirement for rape. Conviction for rape required that the victim's testimony be supported by other evidence.
In the 1910 case People v. Friedman, the court justified the corroboration requirement on the theory that rape was easy to allege and that, without a corroboration requirement, it was difficult to disprove. Force, penetration, and the identity of the perpetrator all had to be corroborated. Prosecutors often sought convictions for lesser offenses in order to avoid these stringent requirements. In People v. English (1966), the court required corroboration for non-sex crimes committed by a defendant also indicted for rape. Critics claimed that this created an incentive to rape women while committing other crimes. However, there was little comment on the corroboration requirement through the mid-1960s. Most commentary that did appear favored the requirement.
In 1961, the all-male State Commission on Revision of the Penal Law and Criminal Code was founded to update New York's criminal laws. The revised corroboration law, passed in 1965, was worded to include attempted rape, and prevent prosecutors from convicting alleged rapists of lesser offenses to avoid having to corroborate. The only comment on the record was that the Commission intended to give the issue of corroboration further consideration.
The revised requirement first received a warm reception from the legal community. Courts applied it with little dissent. In the mid to late 1960s, however, women's rights groups organized and focused on rape. Women were obtaining more political power, setting the stage for the requirement's demise.
In 1970, the legislature responded to women's voices by introducing three bills to amend the corroboration requirement. Two died in committee, while one passed the Assembly but was voted down in the Senate. Five more bills were introduced unsuccessfully the following year. Critics claimed that it made it impossible to convict an alleged rapist, discriminated against women, and virtually legalized rape. In 1972, Alvin Suchin introduced a bill to require corroboration only for the force element of rape and to repeal the corroboration requirement for non-sex crimes accompanying a rape.
The revision proposal was criticized by courts and commentators for amending instead of repealing the corroboration requirement. Women's rights groups lobbied the state legislature to repeal the requirement. Rape was still harder to prove than other crimes, and its conviction rate was lower than other felonies. Public support for repeal was nearly unanimous. Suchin introduced a bill to repeal the corroboration requirement on the first day of the 1974 session of the New York legislature. It passed both houses unanimously and was signed into law by the Governor on February 10, 1974.
The repeal of the corroboration requirement showed how by organizing and lobbying, women put an issue on the political agenda and gained widespread public support. However, the doctrine of corroboration may be inherent in the legal system and police and prosecutorial attitudes as they decide which cases to bring and which to drop.
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